Soay: sample not looking so hot
Here's what you don't want in a fleece, especially from a rare breed: sunburned tips that snap off. Sometimes sunbleached tips on a fleece are just fine—the color has lightened or gone brown without weakening the fiber very much. Sometimes the damage goes too far. Especially bad when it's a hard fiber to get, like Soay, a breed that's been around since the Stone Age (that's before the Bronze Age and the Iron Age) and doesn't fit the industrialized agricultural model in any way. It's far from impossible to get Soay, but when you do get it and it falls apart . . . that's a problem.
The top lock is the original form. The bottom two locks show what happens when I pull—not even very hard—on those crispy, brown tips (they feel like pencil shavings).
Also, at the bases of most of the locks is a bunch of scurf, or skin flakes, that can be removed from a fleece but the fiber needs to be able to withstand extra handling, which this wool won't. If just the tips were damaged, I could snip them off. But the rest of the staple feels crispy (therefore fragile) as well. Hmmm. What to do? I don't know yet.
North Ronaldsay's another very old breed. Most writings say Iron Age, but recent DNA testing says it goes back farther.
Working with this sample was slightly challenging, too, because the breed's fleece has a tendency to form matts at the bases of the locks (an incomplete transition from naturally shedding to needs-shearing types of sheep) and the tips of the locks were stuck together.
However, the tips didn't break off and I was able to flick both ends of each lock on a fine-toothed hand carder and separate the fibers, which I then spun on a hand spindle. It made quite a blissful yarn–not much of it, because I have to move on, but I could feel the North Ronaldsay's close relationship to Shetlands as I spun. (Some North Ronaldsay fleeces feel closer to other relatives.)
The wee two-ply sample skein is drying (in this photo, it was still singles).
A clean, unprepared lock is on the bottom and one of the prepared locks is on the top. It's a Magpie spindle.
One little surprise on this sample was that when I checked it into the tracking system I wrote "light gray." Obviously, it's pretty darn white. It's amazing how the dirt in a fleece can shift the perceived color of unwashed wool. Spinners find this most disappointing when they think they've found a light brown fleece and it turns out to be cream or white.
Part of what I learned today is why the matting forms at the bases of the locks within this breed—which gave me more patience in dealing with it. I also wrote up most of the material on North Ronaldsays, with all sorts of additional information that I, at least, find really cool.
One breed a day? Oh, I hope not! This project will take forever, and I have until the end of summer.
Hat from the booth of El Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco at Maryland Sheep & Wool
I promised a more accurate photo:
Isn't it lovely?
And as a bonus here's a better photo of the breed-specific skeins I bought at Maryland:
That helps me keep my perspective about things like disintegrating Soay wool.